Poetry, rumination, teaching, Uncategorized

Teaching/Learning in Progress: Getting Started in Creative Writing

It is my habit to start each semester’s (UG sophomore-level) Creative Writing class with a writing exercise/assignment using objects — some common, some strange — distributed at random among students. There’s a multi-step, in-class generative phase, and then at home, students are to draft a piece somehow connected to/inspired by the object. Here are some photos documenting my own brainstorming and drafting — my object was a “T” token.

Step one — the in-class brainstorming part. I keep veering back and forth between just “talking” students through the steps and giving them a handout, which is good for encouraging students to move at their own pace.

I took my “worksheet” home and pounded out this really long, probably needlessly-wordy poem draft (essay draft?). Then, next class, we did a round of feedback, with multiple folks commenting on drafts. My readers were really helpful, and good at describing to me what they noticed and appreciated. And this is only the second day of class!

I’ve already started very minimally tinkering/editing…I’ll probably revisit this draft when we spend a class focusing on “radical” editing and revision skills. We’ll do exercises meant to really “mess up” our drafts, in order to “see them anew.” Until then, I might keep tinkering here and there:

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On the Locksmith’s Retirement

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This poem was originally published in 2013 in OVS magazine — there are plans to change (any day now!) all the locks in my campus building, sweet old Ellen Reed House, and talk of those plans brought this poem back to mind.

On The Locksmith’s Retirement

After nearly forty years,
on the small-town college campus
he reckons eight hundred and forty two doors
were his exclusive territory –
his, and his father’s before him –

not just the locks, but the doors
themselves, the hinges,
the winter-swollen wood
needing a bit of shouldering,
the brass strikeplate
that’s shifted over time
so the deadbolt’s tongue
can’t quite find home.

These buildings known to him
like the body of the beloved –
an intimate cartography – all these portals
which seem generic to the rest of us.

The reception’s assembled crowd laughs
to hear he’s picked a few locks in his day,
but he doesn’t find it that funny –
just another kind of key he’s made,
another way through
to the other side.

Back in my office,
behind what I now know as his door,
my freshly-pinned ten years
feel scant; my scholarship thins
to shallow ephemera. My sense
of where I am, what I know, disrupted.

When I retire, I hope I’ll also be able to say
I’ve opened every door at least once.

 

teaching, Uncategorized

List Poems

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This week in the Poetry Workshop, it’s reading and writing list poems.  As you can see, my students did a stellar job of coming up with a huge variety of types of list — so many more than I had thought up on my own.

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I wonder about the list as a structure and a form. A list is certainly a kind of repetition, in the way that rhyme is a repetition, or refrain. As a form a list may set up a clear/particular premise or expectation. Included under the umbrella of “list poem” for me are the techniques of anaphora and epistrophe. One student introduced us to a third — epanalepsis.

It seems to me that writing and reading list poems (or “litanies”) brings to the fore particular poetic concerns, at least for me. List poems make me think more about order and arrangement — does a list escalate? Fork out into tangents? How might juxtaposition of dissimilar items work as a kind of energy in a list poem?

If the list is numbered, what do the numbers bring to the table? When to number, when not?

Also: how do you find a way to END a list poem?

Also: titles seem especially important for list poems, or for certain types of list poems.

Also: how does the nature of a list (different types of lists) affect thinking about lines and stanzas? Line = item on list? Stanza = item on list?

Also: what happens to syntax (verbs, especially) with a list? Some kinds of lists are very noun-y.

Also, how might “listing” and narrative/linearity interplay?

POEM PACKET of examples we read in class:

Christopher Smartt: from Jubilate Agno
Stephanie Lenox, “Rejoice in the Petty Thievery of Office Supplies”
Joy Harjo, “She Had Some Horses”
danez smith, “alternate names for black boys”
Savannah Sipple, “A List of Times I Thought I Was Gay”
“4 Ways of Throwing Something into the Boston Public Gardens Swan Pond,” “the bullshit,” and “non-hierarchial list of love poem ideas,” all by jamie mortara
“Things I Have Failed At” by Baruch Porras-Hernandez
“Things That Appear Ugly Or Troubling But Upon Closer Inspection Are Beautiful” by Gretchen Legler

In different days, those two lists I just wrote — a list of things I’m thinking about with list poems and a list of list poems — would perhaps be combined and expanded into more of a little essay. Alas, these days are filled with so many other lists, which even now are glowering at me as I take time away from to share even these scantest, barely-conceived thoughts.

I’ll end with a VERY OLD list poem I wrote when I was living in Lincoln, Nebraska. It took me a while to remember I had written such a poem — but — here it is.

The Neighbors

The ones you never see.
The ones you always see.

The drunk one who stumbles
up onto your porch
to triangulate his walkie-talkie.

The nosy ones.

The slovenly ones.

The ones who are beautiful.

The muzzled dog that barks
anyway, each time you park
or open your door or sneeze loudly.

The ones who speak no English.
The ones who speak only English.
The ones who don’t speak.

The ones who listen.

The kid, the one who steals
lawn ornaments you never liked anyhow.

The shady one, or the one
with shady friends.

The quiet one.

The hooligan.

The one whose window is always blue
and flickering with TV light.

The ones whose windows
are never open.

The dead ones.

The ones who play guitar.

The yelling guy.

The dancing girls.

The naked one.

The ones who go to church
in the windowless white building
on the corner.

The one who hates you.

The one on public access.

The ones who have
two testy Siamese cats.

The mean one.
The scary ones.

The sweet one.

The one who dreamt
last night of you
but who will never say.

The one you dreamt about.

Those who smoke summer evenings
on porches facing yours.

Those who ride bikes.
Those who fly flags.
Those who do Halloween,
candy, decorations, all of it.

The ones you wonder about.

The ones who know your name
and the ones who don’t,
who have barbecues.

The ones who wonder about you.

 

**

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October 28-31, 2019: Poetry Bridging Continents IV

I’m so honored to be participating in this event — come see me and a host of other poets — from the U.S. and China — at our reading on October 31 at the AMC Highland Center in Crawford Notch!

Poetry Society of New Hampshire

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Poetry Bridging Continents IV: “Rivers … were made in heaven” (R. Frost) is a four day international gathering open to the public at New England College that brings together New England and leading Chinese New Pastoral poets, scholars, and cultural ambassadors to explore ways to build bridges between two distinct cultures and communities using Pastoral Poetry and literary scholarship as a guide.

The symposium continues the alternating annual gatherings between American and Chinese poets and scholars in the New England region and in China that builds upon the environmental creativity of the New Pastoral scholarship which the Twenty-first Century has birthed on both sides of the Pacific Ocean. The New Pastoral Poetry is evolving in the 21st Century into the poetry of The Anthropocene: The geologic period when human activity is the dominant force on the planet’s environment. Pastoral Poetry’s central focus is concerned with the ways language can be…

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The Radiators in Ellen Reed House

^^(sound on if you’d like the full experience, or, well, come by my OFFICE at 7:20AM for the FULL full experience, or around, I think, 2:30 in the afternoon?)^^

They’ve finally turned at least some of the heat at work — and I have grown to love the percussion of it as it comes to life through the arteries and walls of this very old building at the center of my fairly old university campus.

The Radiators in Ellen Reed House

have been pushing their ancient water
through these plaster walls

since Robert Frost taught here –
since long before then, probably.

Maybe they churned and hissed
back when the school was Normal

and even back before the other people
these campus buildings are named for were even born.

Maybe this network of copper tubes reaches back down
to the very invention of water.

The vintage pipes and valves are more cantankerous
than the Man Himself allegedly was —

clanking, cranky, clanging
against themselves

heaving tennis balls of steam
through the building’s shrieking arteries

on thousands of April afternoons like this
when one more winter storm takes aim

with its own foul mood,
at the tender, bobbing tulip-heads.

 

Published in Rappahannock Review (Issue 3.3, August 2016)

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It’s 2019!

Really. And it’s already February 2019, even though January 2019 felt like it was 2 months long. I did a new-poem-a-day grind in January, which is maybe part of what made it feel extra sloggy. Also plenty of snow-shoveling.

I’m just here to say “hi” by way of some updates!

This week, my villanelle, “Aquarium,” from my very first chapbook, A Thirst That’s Partly Mine (Slapering Hol, 2008), is featured in Ted Kooser’s “American Life in Poetry” column.

Last month, my poem, “Putting the Flowers Out,” was published in Atticus Review. It includes the phrase, “piss-ridden,” which I think is a poetry first for me!

I’ve got a couple of readings coming up later this spring, and am anticipating the publication of a new chapbook, called Song and Scar, from No Chair Press. Stay tuned for more info on that as I get it!

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Crackle and Plow

               for my beloved librarians, and for Stephen King

It’s a thick tome, nearly six-hundred pages,
hardcover, new enough still that the boards
haven’t bent or softened at the corners.
The protective film crackles each time
I open or close it, or shift in my chair
as I plow through the thing, and both of those verbs—
crackle and plow—take me chest-deep
into primal happiness. Crackle
takes me back to the treasure-houses
that were my first childhood libraries,
the shelves adazzle with the spines
of plastic-covered books I could choose
and bring home; the sober ritual
at the circulation desk; writing my name
on each date-stamped card drawn
from the manila paper slots
pasted to the books’ back covers;
then home with my hoard. Or just reading
in the library itself, where nobody would
ask why I was so quietask wasn’t I tired of reading
ask shouldn’t I go outside and get some fresh air?
and everything was pretty quiet except for that crackle,
or the whispers of turning pages.

Plow for the way some novels,
like this new Stephen King in my fat old lap
can still pull me through, breakneck, me reading
as if eating for the first time in a week or
as if the book were a bridge disintegrating
beneath my feet as I sprinted across it.
Glad to know it can still happen, this urgency,
this alien-abduction loss of an afternoon,
this utter transportation. Halfway through,
I notice an odd gap between pages
of the briefly closed book, so I flip forward
to pages I haven’t read yet to find
a single wooden toothpick, which might
gross me out but instead brings to mind
my father, dead several years now,
my father of the martini olives and dental work,
my father of the classic wooden toothpick
who very well could have, inadvertently,
lost one of his many in pages like these.

My father, who first got me going on Stephen King,
who was my Stephen King reading companion
through times when our differences
were outpacing our similarities;
when our tastes and values were diverging,
as they do, as they must. It’s him I think of today,
open to this splinter of a surprise—and, more,
I’m reawakening to the magic of circulation
the books moving like blood through a body,
passed like vital sustenance from hand to hand to hand,
all those good hands I take briefly in my own
in this pause before plowing forward again.

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Earthrise, Fifty Years Later

In December of 1968, a particularly difficult year in the U.S. and elsewhere, NASA’s Apollo 8 mission offered a moment of hope and beauty. Launched on December 21, the mission achieved many important “firsts” critical to achieving the moon landing, which would eventually happen halfway through 1969 — first (manned) launch from the Kennedy Space Center, first crewed flight of the behemoth Saturn V rocket, first humans past high Earth orbit, first humans to the moon, around the moon, back from the moon, first live TV images of the lunar surface.

But it was one of the first still color photographs taken by a human (Bill Anders) from deep space that became a provocative and enduring symbol of the beauty and fragility of our blue planet. It came to be known as “Earthrise,” and it was taken on December 24, 1968.

Here’s a poem from my collection, “Moon Shot,” inspired by the taking of this photograph:

Image #14-2383

            Apollo 8

Sometimes the best-laid mission plan,
tidy and typed in carbon triplicate
will miss something, even
with the laser-vision of all those eyes.

Sometimes, the mission itself
shifts as it unfolds,
as you’re breathless in the thrill
of hitting goals no one had thought
to set down on paper.

For instance
if you’re prepping
to be the first guys to fly out to the moon—
not land on it, just everything but
you’ll have studied your lunar maps,
the photographs snapped
by the machines sent in advance
who knew only to obey the crude code
with which they were programmed.

And NASA will have outfitted you
with all the best cameras and lenses they could find
and a list – such a list – of targets
to capture in color and black and white:
rilles, craters, debris fields, potential landing sites,
boulders, valleys, constellations.

But your exhaustive and specific list
will omit one simple thing,
and you won’t realize it until,
on the third lunar orbit,
freshly trimmed from an ellipse to a circle,
and “heads up” for the first time, you see

the earth
rising, improbably, fantastically,
from beneath the moon’s horizon.

You’re so well-trained
that your initial impulse
is to stick to mission, stick
to ticking off that list
everybody agreed on
back there on the ground

but the earth

the earth is coming up
over the moon
rising
like the moon
like the sun
like

like nothing you have a metaphor for
and you are so well-trained

that you can still reach just past
the mission-bound edges of that training
and snap the color photographs
not on the checklist,
the photographs no one knew
would need to be taken –

the now-ubiquitous whole earth,
blue and borderless and feathered
with clouds,

dangling in the void

our precariousness
our us-ness
no longer an abstraction.

Who knows what lunar ravine,
what highlands or nameless maria
lost their place in the queue
so that everything we knew
could shift into new focus,
so we could be remade, albeit briefly,
by just a glance at this first true likeness
of ourselves?